CONCERT REVIEW When Sound Worlds Collide

Collage New Music Performs Contemporary, Remembers Bach

Collage New Music

Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall

March 2, 2009

Collage New Music, performing in Longy School of Music’s Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall this past Monday, articulated contemporary voices in music with a unique and refreshing ability. This isn’t a complaint about contemporary music performances: it’s not difficult to see that most contemporary music is performed by competent musicians and that it takes a very talented musician to play contemporary music in the first place.

When looking at music in general, one contemplates the notion of “sound worlds” — that a piece written ten or twenty years ago occupies a musical topology that is distinct from (but not unrelated to) music from the baroque era which in itself occupies a musical toplogy that is distinct from (but, again, not unrelated to) music from the Romantic era, the Classical era, and so on. The instruments and even ways of performing the music (issues concerning interpretations of tempo, dynamic, touch and various other aesthetics) that are specific for each of these sound worlds would seem out of place in any other. At some point we’re left asking whether a musician trained in the sound world of Josquin or du Fay can even begin to approach Copland or Barber (assuming, of course, that Copland and Barber can begin to occupy the same sound world).

It’s worth arguing whether or not these distinctions constitute a valid approach to listening to the vast opus of classical music, but regardless of that discussion: here was Collage Music’s performance on Monday night, and what was strikingly notable was its earnest presentation of twentieth century music.

The concert began with Christopher Oldfather at the piano presenting Donald Crockett’s Pilgrimage (1988), a piece based on Bach’s famous chromatic progression B-A-C-H (in English notation, B flat-A-C-B natural). The work begins with the first three notes of the progression and journeys through various textures and motifs to achieve the ultimate “H” (the point of arrival cruelly and mysteriously transposed six octaves above the droning B-A-C). Certainly, the music is conceived with Bach in mind, and some form of chorale or counterpoint almost continuously occupies the work. But there was more to Oldfather’s performance — it was impossible not to hear an Ives-ian lament in the opening arpeggiations on the three note motif, perhaps Debussy in the growling bass of the second portion of the music, or a tempered Beethoven in the closing chorales. Something — perhaps Brahmsian or Schubertian in Catherine French’s violin and Oldfather’s piano, (during Andrew Imbrie’s 1997 work, Chicago Bells) — occurred in the musicians’ attention to ensemble playing as running melodies underscored the hair-raising “vivace” movement.

Judith Bettina’s rich soprano in Tobias Picker’s settings of two WS Merwin poems in Two Songs (from Rain In Trees) somehow brought to mind Strauss or Mahler, as melodic lines lushly blossomed in her higher range. Bettina’s diction in these pieces was immaculate, but almost to a fault — American “r”s often curdled sustained vowels and tainted her glorious musical lines.

Bettina’s emotionally charged performance was followed by Picker’s Blue Hula, performed by Christopher Krueger (flute), Robert Annis (clarinet), Catherine French (violin), Joel Moerschel (cello), Christopher Oldfather (piano), and David Hoose as conductor. This was a piece charged with the loose rhythms and harmonies of early twentieth century’s curious new “le jazz” in both score and performance. It’s hard not to draw the parallels between the progression in the concert’s program and musical history.

The second half of Monday’s performance was somehow more neurotically introspective: this is the musical sound world that is somehow less willing to reveal its secrets at first blush.

Bettina returned for the world premiere of David Rakowski’s Phillis Levin Songs, commissioned in 2008 for the Collage. Levin’s poetry is complicated and practically beyond comprehension, and it was unclear that Rakowski had attempted to understand the poetry or interpret for the listener anywhere beyond the most superficial. Mr. Hoose’s performance with Collage presented an attentive interpretation of Rakowski’s difficult score, but an almost juvenile understanding of Levin’s work, combined with unreasonable melodic lines that bordered on sustained “parlando vocalise” (what, exactly, does one sing when there’s nothing to sing? More precisely: how?) simply seemed a molestation the ensemble’s considerable talents.

This was not so, however, in the final piece of the evening, Imbrie’s Pilgrimage, composed for Collage in 1983. The work flourished under Hoose’s leadership, employing a particular brand of attention to detail that created a surprisingly coherent ensemble out of Imbrie’s otherwise fractured composition.Certainly composed with the same raison d’être as Crockett’s piece earlier in the performace, Imbrie’s work approached the subject from a very different perspective. Imbrie’s Pilgrimage is ethereal, probing the funadmentals of harmonic series and rhythm, ending the evening in a world not disconnected from the glorious resonance of domed chapels and gothic cathedrals.

To be sure: it may be an affectation divorced from both composer’s or performer’s intent to hear the forebears of Western music in Monday evening’s concert. Regardless, it’s important to note that each of Collage’s members, although performing contemporary music, do not belong solely to this sound world: each member also has a background in the more traditional Western canon (many are instructors in Boston’s various conservatories).

To answer whether musicians trained in different sound worlds can interact: a resounding yes. In fact it’s surprising to hear how these backgrounds informs an understanding and performance of contemporary music — that perhaps the Western opus isn’t easily definable into tragically distinct inert bubbles and niches. Perhaps it’s a false hope and potentially inaccurate one, but, as Monday’s concert demonstrated, it may not be too unreasonable to hear music as a dialogue. It is a blurring of worlds, that despite time, locale, thought and background, allows even Bach to live within music written and performed today.